A little girl came home crying. When her mother asked her what was the matter, she said, “Bethany is moving away.”
“But you don’t even like Bethany,” said her mother.
The girl sobbed, “But now I don’t have anyone to feel better than!”
Yes, we learn to do the Comparison Dance early, don’t we? Who is better looking? Who is smarter? Who is more popular? Who got into the better school? Who got the better job? Who got the promotion?
A Hindu proverb reminds us:
“There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person. The true nobility is being superior to your previous self.”
Isn’t this a better way to dance through life?
It frees us from feeling inferior to someone or superior to someone. After all, there will always be greater and lesser persons than ourselves.
And it frees us to explore the possibilities of our own uniqueness.
This is important, because you are an original version of “human being.” No one has ever done a human life quite the way you are doing it.
And although we can learn a lot from others, we don’t want to miss our uniqueness. And we don’t want to waste too much energy on the Comparison Dance. As the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov said:
“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself”
How does one grade a life? What does it mean to succeed at life?
What if you’ve already succeeded!
That was the opinion of the late Robert Nozick, former Harvard professor and past President of the American Philosophical Association.
Nozick suggested a novel way to grade one’s life based on a 100-point scale.
You get 50 points for just being alive, he said. Then you get 30 more points for being human, as opposed to being an oak tree or hippopotamus, for example.
So now you’re already up to 80 out of 100.
Then, he said, give yourself 10 more points if you’re basically able to function and get through the day, if you have some skill.
Now you’re up to 90 out of 100. And in many schools, I think that’s an A or A-.
Congratulations, you’re already getting at least an A- in life!
The last 10 points? Nozick said that’s for all the messes we get into and all the stuff we worry and stress about most of the time.
Nozick suggests that if we would spend a little more time thinking about and celebrating and appreciating what an amazing, incredible thing it is just to be alive and be human and able to function—then we might handle the other problems more effectively.
You’re alive. You’re human. You can function. That gives you a solid foundation and launching pad for everything you need to do and anything you want to do.
I love the stories of Nasrudin, a character in Middle Eastern literature who was pictured with a goatee and a turban. He often said crazy things that had a kind of wisdom. For example…
A politician, who had agreed to meet Nasrudin for debate, went to his home at the appointed time and found he wasn’t there. Infuriated, the politician picked up a piece of chalk and wrote “Stupid Oaf” on his gate.
As soon as he got home and saw this, Nasrudin rushed to the politician’s house. “I had forgotten,” he said, “that you were to call. I apologize for not being home. Of course, I remembered the appointment as soon as I saw that you had left your name on the door.”
In today’s environment, maybe it’s not a bad idea to take just a moment and laugh at our all-too-human tendency to label others.
And it is a bit ridiculous. Someone does or says something that seems dumb to me, and I’m tempted to label them a “Stupid Oaf”—or worse—all on the basis of one statement or opinion.
But that would probably say more about me than about them. And one thing it would say is that I hadn’t worked very hard to see them as a person. As an Indian proverb says:
“When a pick-pocket looks at the greatest man in the world, all he sees are his pockets.”
Someone has said, “All labels are libels,” and I believe it’s true. Because labeling someone means behaving like that pick-pocket: we just focus on one small aspect of the person and use that to judge (usually, mis-judge) the entire person.
The truth is, every person, without exception, is a complex, one-of-a-kind human being with gifts and wounds, with successes and failures, with strengths and weaknesses. Every person, without exception, transcends any and all labels. There is more to every person than meets the eye.
Overcoming “Pick-pocket Syndrome”—trying to understand people (even with all their orneriness) rather than just label them—is hard work.
It’s a dirty job, but in times like these, someone’s got to do it.
Almost 2500 years ago a young man named Aeschylus left home with his beloved brother to defend Athens against the invading Persians. The defense was successful, but Aeschylus’ brother was killed.
How did Aeschylus deal with this personal tragedy and the horrors of war? He began writing tragic plays. Today he’s considered the father of Greek tragedy.
He thought a great deal about the role of suffering as is evidenced by this powerful line:
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
This might sound like a downer at first. But look again. He’s telling us that pain and suffering, though we would never seek them, can still play a positive role in our lives.
Yes, we can avoid much suffering through common sense, and we should. But when suffering comes, we need not think that life has gone off the rails, or that the gods are against us, or that suffering means we are somehow disqualified.
It just means we’re human. And it may mean we’re a little wiser.
Aeschylus reminds us that suffering is part of life in this world, part of being human. We need not be embarrassed. We need not give up. We need not become cynical or hard.
First, as someone has said, your problems won’t kill you, but the way you think about them might. Aeschylus gives us a better way to think about problems and suffering.
Second, joy does not cancel tragedy, and tragedy does not cancel joy. Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. We can respond whole-heartedly to both.
We don’t have to turn away from those who are suffering because we share a common human condition. But we also don’t have to let suffering blind us to the joy and beauty and goodness of life. In fact, tragedy can intensify our experience of joy.
We can laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. Tragedy and joy are the yin and yang of the soul. As Blake wrote:
“Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.”